Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lurie 2, straw men 0

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

I don’t really feel like writing this post. Instead of taking the bait and responding to Margot Lurie’s latest hit piece on independent minyanim, my time would be better spent on actually organizing an independent minyan. If you’re in the DC area this weekend, you’re all invited to Segulah on Shabbat morning. We’ll be meeting in the Tifereth Israel building, 7701 16th St NW (entrance on Juniper St), Washington DC, starting at 9:30 am. (Yes, we rent space from a synagogue, and no, that’s not a secret.)

But I’m taking the bait anyway, because I guess someone has to.

But before I do that, a number of people have asked me if I was going to respond to Noam Neusner’s oped in the Forward. (It seems to be Crap-On-Independent-Minyanim Month in the Jewish press.) The answer is that I already responded 4 years ago. And that’s all I have to say about that. (I would think that Neusner, as a former Bush speechwriter, would understand that independent minyanim aren’t taking away synagogues’ share of the pie, but are making the pie higher.)

Back to the story. Margot Lurie wrote a fanciful review of Empowered Judaism by Elie Kaunfer, in the Jewish Review of Books. I took it apart last fortnight right here on this blog. The review also got attention in other parts of the world, including from Shmuel Rosner on the Jerusalem Post website. Rosner then ran a letter from Kaunfer, correcting Lurie’s fabrication about “organized community money”. Then this week, Rosner did an interview with Lurie, asking some followup questions. (I don’t know whether either Rosner or Lurie has read my original fisk; neither of them reference it directly, though they both refer in general to criticism.)

In this interview, Lurie once again conjures up straw men, and then defeats them. She criticizes independent minyanim for failing to live up to goals that they never claimed to have in the first place.

From the top:

Let’s start with factual questions. You write that “There is an open secret about Hadar: like many other minyanim, it is funded by lots of organized community money, offered by institutions eager to keep young Jews connected to their heritage.” Hadar’s Elie Kaunfer writes: “Independent minyanim are overwhelmingly self-supported by the supposed slacker population that attends it.” Can you both be right?
“Shape of Earth: Views Differ”
I was referring to things like Hillel campus subsidies for leaders of independent minyanim which draw college students,
I’ve never heard of these subsidies, so I’m unable to respond to this. Does anyone know what she’s talking about?
as well as the subsidized rent and other in-kind contributions that most independent minyanim receive.
This is clearly a retcon (or in Aramaic, chisurei mechsera v’hachi katanei). There is no way that the plain sense of “funded by lots of organized community money” is “in-kind contributions”; by definition, “in-kind contributions” can be anything but money. Lurie got caught in an error, and then instead of saying “Oops, my bad” and printing a correction, she’s doubling down.

But addressing her claim at face value, I’m curious how she arrives at the figure of “most independent minyanim”. There are, roughly speaking, three types of independent minyanim: 1) Those that meet in participants’ homes or other “free” spaces. As a commenter pointed out in the previous thread, these spaces represent in-kind donations. However, that doesn’t involve the “organized community”. 2) Those that meet in non-Jewish spaces. These generally don’t receive any “subsidized rent”; their relationship with their host space is purely a landlord-tenant business relationship. 3) Those that meet in Jewish spaces. These include a) those that receive donations of space (and for you minyan entrepreneurs out there, I don’t recommend this: your host institution will want something in return; you just don’t know what it is yet), and b) those that pay rent. It’s hard to determine which minyanim in group 3b are receiving “subsidized rent” and which aren’t — they pay whatever level of rent they negotiate with their hosts, and the hosts don’t necessarily have a standard rate for renting out space, to which the minyan’s rate can be compared to determine whether they’re getting a subsidy. Lurie is claiming that 3a plus part of 3b adds up to “most”, and I’d like to see some justification for that.

I just did a quick back-of-the envelope estimate: I’ve been to at least 25 independent minyanim, so I listed the ones I could think of, and about half of those meet (or most recently met, if the minyan no longer exists) in Jewish buildings. That’s an upper bound for how many of them are getting “subsidized rent” from the “organized community” (since some of them may be paying full price, however you define that). So I don’t think “most” is correct.
As for Hadar in particular, the minyan is only one of its three affiliated institutions, the other two of which report receipts of funding from the organized community.
The minyan is also the only one of the three institutions that is a minyan! The original article said “Hadar, like many other minyanim”, suggesting that it was talking about a minyan named Hadar, not a yeshiva named Hadar or a star named Hadar.

The three (terrestrial) Hadars are two separate legal entities, with separate budgets (Yeshivat Hadar is a program of Mechon Hadar, but Kehilat Hadar is separate). If you want to accuse them of money laundering, then come out and say it.
You write that “It is no accident that of the three leaders of Yeshivat Hadar, both Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker are the sons of prominent Conservative rabbis, and Shai Held is the son of a late professor at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary.” Is this more proof that independent minyanim aren’t really “independent” or more indictment of the Conservative movement’s inability to retain its best and brightest?

The term “independent” suggests a self-sustaining body outside the traditional synagogue structure. But most minyanim are not independent in that sense.
I (inadvertently) had a central enough role in the popularization of the term “independent minyan” that I feel qualified to play Marshall McLuhan and say “You know nothing of my work.”

That’s not what “independent” (in “independent minyan”) ever meant. “Independent” means two things: 1) not affiliated with any of the Jewish denominations. (The denominations all have formal membership for congregations, so there’s no gray area here. None of the denominations accept being founded by the son of a rabbi of that denomination as a substitute for a membership application.) 2) not part of a larger organization, such as a synagogue.

That’s all. “Independent” doesn’t mean completely self-sufficient, with your own power generator and a basement full of canned food. The United States is an independent country, even though it imports goods from other countries, and even though its founders were originally British subjects. Independent candidates appear on the same ballot as other candidates. Rosner and Lurie are trying to play “gotcha” (and they’re not the first), but this stems from a misunderstanding of the claims that independent minyanim are making.
Or, more accurately, their independence extends only to serving the needs of their members for prayer and learning, and that’s it. As soon as someone wants to get married or divorced, or arrange for a funeral, then, well, no minyan is an island – it needs the resources of the larger community, on which it is very much dependent.
Independent minyanim don’t claim to be one-stop shops for everything Jewish in their participants’ lives. In many (most?) cases, they don’t even claim to be one-stop shops for prayer and learning: as Lurie noted in her original review, many (most?) independent minyanim don’t have services every week, so anyone who wants to pray with a community every week has to look elsewhere some of the time. No one denies this. Independent minyanim are very openly a-la-carte, intended to function as part of the larger Jewish ecosystem. They focus on the areas where they have a comparative advantage, and let other organizations do the rest. No minyan claims to be an island. This is in contrast to many synagogues, which do attempt to be one-stop shops for everything Jewish, regardless of whether they’re any good at it. This is understandable in places where one synagogue really is the only game in town, but wasteful in big cities with many Jewish congregations.

Tikkun Leil Shabbat is an excellent example of an independent minyan that engages strategically with the broader community. TLS is a community committed to social justice, and decided from the beginning that rather than putting together its own half-baked “social action programs” (with great effort and minimal impact), it would connect its participants with organizations that are already doing real social justice work, both inside and outside the Jewish community. This leads to the maximum benefit for everyone.

As far as the specific examples that Lurie cites:
Jewish marriage doesn’t require any institutional infrastructure; it just requires two witnesses. Lots of independent minyan participants have organized their own weddings.
Jewish divorce is a big mess, and that’s a problem that independent minyanim can’t solve, but apparently neither can synagogues.
Funerals and burials do, of course, require infrastructure. But most synagogues don’t operate their own funeral homes or cemeteries either. They work with funeral homes and cemeteries in the larger Jewish community, and there’s no reason an independent minyan couldn’t do the same. For example, the Newton Centre Minyan does its own funerals (led by participants), and has its own section in a local Jewish cemetery.
Independent minyanim speak to the portion of the Jewish community that is interested in traditional prayer and ritual practice, in progressive halakhah, in modernization, and in women’s full participation in services—in other words, Conservative Judaism.
Independent minyanim come in many flavors. Not all of them are “interested in traditional prayer and ritual” (depending on how “traditional” is defined), and not all of them are gender-egalitarian. So a good number of them don’t fit into even this overly broad definition of Conservative Judaism.

As for those minyanim that do display all these traits, it’s a logical fallacy to say “X has these traits, Y has these traits, therefore X=Y.” Conservative Judaism defines itself by other aspects besides these, including a structure for religious authority that independent minyanim do not recognize. (And by the way, not all Conservative congregations are gender-egalitarian either, so this isn’t a defining feature of Conservative Judaism.)
One Conservative rabbi has said that my problem with independent minyanim is that they aren’t Orthodox. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My interest is in having a vigorous liberal Judaism that can hold its own next to Orthodoxy. In my article I gave my reasons for thinking that the minyan movement doesn’t hold the answer.
“These do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change … and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, ‘I agree with your ends but not your means.’ They function as blankets whenever possible smothering sparks of dissension that promise to flare up into the fire of action.” –Saul Alinsky

If your interest is in creating a vigorous liberal Judaism, how is attacking the people who are trying to do something about it going to advance that interest? Early on in her review, Lurie writes that “the suburban mausoleum that is the liberal synagogue was, at best, built for a sociological reality decades out of date”, so surely she would agree that attempting incremental change within those institutions is not a recipe for success. Nor is it possible to have alternatives to those institutions descend from heaven in flames, fully built, like the Third Temple. So the remaining option is to start small and build from there, even if the alternative communities don’t start out fixing every problem in American Judaism from day one.
I moved to New York’s Upper West Side from Iowa, so I can attest to the fact that people in small or struggling Jewish communities see the minyan movement (to the extent that they’re aware of it at all) as largely irrelevant to their concerns. There are much more significant issues facing American Judaism, and much greater challenges for young and energetic leaders with big visions.
So what should these “young and energetic leaders” outside of Iowa be doing differently that would have a more positive impact on the Jews of Iowa? Bear in mind that most of us have day jobs.
Did you expect this article to become so controversial - did you think you’re going to be criticized in such way? Do you think independent minyanim have become the sacred goat [SACRED COW?] of contemporary Judaism?
Ok, that was weird. Is “[SACRED COW?]” a copy editor’s note that got left in by mistake? I’ve never heard of “sacred goat” before.
I knew I was going to kick up some dust. Still, the extent of the hysteria brought on by one person’s dissent is a little telling, don’t you think?
And if no one had responded, Lurie would instead have written “Still, the deafening silence brought on by one person’s dissent is a little telling, don’t you think?”
I’m certainly not calling—or capable of calling—for the dismantling of independent minyanim, which are, as I say in my article, a response to the spiritual bankruptcy and the organized failures of the Conservative movement.
The Conservative movement doesn’t have a monopoly on spiritual bankruptcy and organized failures. Independent minyanim are responses to the spiritual bankruptcy and the organized failures of all the movements.
But the tendentiousness of the independent minyan movement’s critique of synagogue life needs to be addressed, as it has real, and not unrelated consequences.
Here, Lurie (or Rosner?) links to an article about the shrinking membership numbers in the Conservative movement (and some inside baseball in the other liberal denominations). Is she really suggesting that these shrinking numbers are a consequence of independent minyanim? A few paragraphs earlier, Lurie wrote that minyanim are “largely irrelevant” to “people in small or struggling Jewish communities”, and now they’re the reason those communities are struggling.

According to the article, USCJ congregations lost 37,100 member families. Let’s conservatively (as it were) estimate an average of 2 people per family, for a total of 74,200 members. By all estimates, this is far greater than the total number of people involved in independent minyanim. There’s just no way mathematically that independent minyanim can be a significant factor in this decline.

Furthermore, these population trends began before the independent minyanim discussed in Empowered Judaism were founded. To the long list of problems that independent minyanim haven’t solved, add time travel. It seems that post hoc ergo propter hoc doesn’t even need the post hoc part anymore!
The elitism and uncritical self-regard of these communities are a big problem.
“Elitism” : independent minyanim :: “socialism” : President Obama

Think about it: they’re both self-perpetuating accusations that get thrown around repeatedly because everyone else is doing it, to the point that they have become almost completely divorced from the actual meaning of the word or the actual facts about the accusee.

Rather than debunk this yet again (not that that would be any more effective at staving off further accusations of “elitism” than asking what exactly is socialist about cutting taxes on millionaires), I’ll just link to my old comments here and here. There’s probably more too - bonus points for finding them.
For one thing, I don’t think it’s a random statistical point that independent minyanim are so age-specific.
No one has claimed that it was random. There are many causal explanations for it. All we said is that it wasn’t an intentional decision by the minyan organizers.

Some of the explanations: The founders of many minyanim were in their 20s and 30s, and the word spread first to their friends, and their friends’ friends, and people tend to be friends with people around the same age. Why were the founders in their 20s and 30s? There’s an age explanation and a generational explanation. Age explanation: people in their 20s and 30s have more time and energy to devote to this kind of thing. Generational explanation here. Why haven’t more people of other ages gravitated to these minyanim? In the case of older adults, many of them have been involved with other Jewish communities for years and are attached to their existing community. In the case of parents and children, there’s a coordination problem, since there’s a need to be in a community with other children. Finally, the most obvious explanation is that people in their 20s and 30s feel most out of place in establishment Jewish institutions, and therefore have the greatest motive to find (or found) alternatives.

These explanations apply to some minyanim and not others. The independent minyanim founded in the ’60s and ’70s may have been founded by people in their 20s and 30s, but their participants have aged, and now those communities have older (as well as younger) populations. And some of the new minyanim have attracted more multigenerational crowds. One successful example is Segulah, which has all ages from babies to over-70. See you this Shabbat!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Empowered fisking

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)
The 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon has inspired many newspaper articles. However, the published “serious” writing (with the appropriate academic or intellectual credentials) on this topic is still far more limited, leading to founder effects, with a few mutations being propagated over and over. For example, Riv-Ellen Prell’s article in Zeek, comparing two generations of independent Jewish communities, is often cited as an authority. While Prell literally wrote the book on an older generation of havurot with an ethnographic study, there is no evidence that she did any primary research on the newer minyanim, or has even been to one; her main source of information on these communities seems to be the roundtable of minyan leaders that appeared in the same issue of Zeek. Yet that article is what there is. In the quantitative realm, the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study gathered lots of valuable data on independent minyanim, but the report (and/or initial media stories about it) also originated some misleading conclusions that won’t go away. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism isn’t the entire story, but there is absolutely no question that Kaunfer knows his subject, and it’s now out there as a real live book.

Margot Lurie’s recent review of Empowered Judaism contains many of the lazy smears about independent minyanim that we’ve been hearing for years (citing such sources as “one parent of a minyan-goer” and “a friend of mine”). Under other conditions, the best thing to do might be to ignore it. But this review is published in the Jewish Review of Books, which gives it the intellectual cachet to place it into the small pond of “serious” writing on this subject. So this review needs to be fisked in the bud before it becomes the next authoritative voice on independent minyanim.

So here we go.